July 7, 2011

The importance of being entertaining

Test cricket must be played to thrill. The attritional variety on show in the West Indies-India series isn't quite the ticket

The current India-West Indies Test series seems to have marked the return - not welcome to many - of cricket as an exercise in attrition. Run rates of about two and a half runs an over for long periods of time, batsmen's strike rates in the low 30s, half-sessions without a single boundary - all these and more, were on display in the first two Tests, in Kingston and Bridgetown.

To watch a batsman nicknamed "The Wall" obdurate in defence, and players of lesser talent barely pushing the ball off the square, has seemed to justify the largely empty stands in two famous cricket grounds that had previously been the sites of many a crowd-pleasing act of derring-do. With the throbbing, pulsating, time-bound and cheerleader-inflected joys of Twenty20 on offer around the world, Test cricket looks in danger of failing the viability test that any activity depending on public support must pass.

The case against Test cricket is easy enough to make. In his masterly defence of the art form, on ESPNcricinfo, Gideon Haigh summarised it well: "[...] we're too time poor, we're too attention-challenged, there aren't enough sixes, there isn't enough colour, you can't squeeze it into a tweet." But surely no one who truly claims to love cricket can reduce its joys to those elements? The people who say the kinds of things Haigh cites are not just critics of Test matches - they have failed to grasp the essence of cricket itself. The unfolding of a five-day match, like the narrative of an intricate novel; the tension of watching a master spinner tie a gifted batsman in knots, even if few runs are scored in the process; the sight of willow-wielding talent asserting its mastery over the fire and brimstone of an aggressive fast bowler, again whether or not a fusillade of runs results; even two tailenders holding out against the clock in the gathering gloom to snatch a brave draw from the snapping jaws of defeat - all these are unavailable in the shorter formats of the game, and they all offer pulsating tension and satisfaction unrelated to the hitting of sixes or the cavorting of cheerleaders.

To love cricket is to appreciate the sheer joy of the highest forms of sport - the elements that stretch human talent to the limit, that transform mechanical skill into beauty, that assert the pleasures of complexity over those of instant gratification. No form of the game showcases these qualities better than Test cricket.

But - and there is always a but - is this enough? Sport is, after all, a form of mass entertainment too. It is one thing to see a good batsman struggle to keep out a brilliant tweaker, another to watch players of less-than-incandescent talent pat ordinary bowling straight to a fielder. The one offers the spectacle of skill rising to a challenge; the other inflicts mediocrity on those who rightly feel they are entitled to watch something better and more enlivening. Players who in ODIs or T20s would thump short-pitched deliveries heading down leg or smash widish balls outside the off stump, leave them alone in Test matches. Worse, they are applauded by the discerning for this show of discretion and temperament.

The irony is that, in the old days, when Test matches were the only form of the game played at international level, the sport often offered plenty of entertainment, even when the matches involved were drawn (as was too often the case between the 60s and the 80s). I say this as one who was taken to his first-ever Test match, by an indulgent father, at age seven. This was in Bombay's lovely Brabourne Stadium in early 1964, when the English were touring (for a series in which, yes, all five Tests were drawn).

The Englishmen were so ravaged by an assortment of maladies that they played both tour wicketkeepers and enlisted the fielding of the Indian 12th man, Hanumant Singh, who was to go on to score a century on debut against them in the fourth Test. Whatever the strength of the visitors, though, the cricket on the third day of the Bombay Test was marvellous. I watched with enthralled eyes as Budhi Kunderan, India's opening batsman and wicketkeeper, who looked like a West Indian and played like one, pulled John Price, England's fastest bowler, for six over square leg, the ball landing practically at my feet. He almost instantly repeated the shot, this time failing to clear the rope. In less time than the difference between a four and a six could be explained to me, Kunderan was on 16; but he tried it too often, sending up a skier that swirled up in a gigantic loop over mid-on. As the ball spiralled upward, he began running; when it was caught by a relieved Fred Titmus in the deep, Kunderan continued running, hurled his bat up skywards with an exuberant war whoop, caught it as it came down and ran on into the pavilion. It was exhilarating stuff, and I was hooked for life.

Good Test cricket requires both approaches, just as a good concerto requires variations in the tempo of the music for the adagio to be appreciated as much as the crescendo. But cricket that features only defensive play soon loses all purpose, as did the India-Pakistan Tests of the 1950s

Who cared that the match petered out in a draw? Of course, even then there were commentators who tut-tutted about Kunderan's irresponsibility, just as they would do in later years about other colourful Indian geniuses - Abid Ali, who opened the batting in his third Test and promptly laid Australia's fearsome pacemen to the sword; Sandeep Patil and Kapil Dev, who were both unjustly dropped by the selectors for getting out caught on the boundary rather than from defensive prods to silly point; and Virender Sehwag, exiled for a year from the Test team despite being his team's second-most successful Test batsman since his debut (and only triple-centurion). But there was no question that even fans like me, who valued the attractions of Test cricket over those of the other forms of the game, still prized these players over those they were dropped for. The finest, most valued Test players have always been those who offered entertainment as well as ability. Glimpses of the Kingston Test have confirmed for me that I would always much rather see a day of Test cricket featuring players who know how to get on with the game, than endure ennui watching those for whom survival is the top-most priority.

Test cricket, in other words, does not have to be boring cricket. The Australians have proved this by pushing average run-rates over four an over and still playing to win. Other sides have followed suit, helping drive contemporary run-rates well above those of the past. Test cricket simply affords a larger and deeper stage for the talents that make cricket worth watching at any level. Sehwag, for instance, is unquestionably a master of Test cricket; he is also indisputably an entertainer, somebody people would go to a cricket ground (or turn on a TV) to watch. A Test series featuring players of both quality and entertainment value - not just the Sehwags, Gilchrists, Richards, Laras, Kapils, Warnes and Tendulkars, who of course are/were on a higher plane than most of their peers, but even lesser lights of dash and bravado - the Pietersens, Taylors, McCullums, Tamims, Bravos and Afridis - would give spectators the best of both worlds. I would rather watch Test matches featuring cricketers like them than any ODI or T20. But I would also rather spend three hours on some run-of-the-mill Big Bash than spend the same amount of time watching a dull session of indifferent cricket that seeks to justify itself through the label of a Test.

It is not my argument that defensive cricket is necessarily bad cricket. During a five-day Test match it is often necessary for a batsman to safeguard his wicket to secure his team's position, or for a bowler defending a meagre total to bowl to a defensive field. But if that is all that happens throughout a match, one cannot blame spectators for staying away. It is silly to suggest that the only yardstick for a good Test is that it feature attacking cricket all the time - that too would be depressingly one-dimensional. Good Test cricket requires both approaches, just as a good concerto requires variations in the tempo of the music for the adagio to be appreciated as much as the crescendo. But cricket that features only defensive play soon loses all purpose, as did the India-Pakistan Tests of the 1950s, where survival (and avoidance of defeat) was the only motivation for both sides. When the two sides stopped playing each other from 1960-61 onwards for nearly 18 years, so poor had the quality of the cricket between them been that it was difficult for the true fan to mourn.

Test cricket is the highest form of the greatest game, but it must be played to entertain, to delight, to win. That's what will redeem it, and make it worth following. And perhaps, once again, even fill the stands.

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian MP and a former United Nations Under-Secretary General

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